Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


Pandit Shivkumar Sharma (above)

IN September 2012, I had begun a monthly series on Indian musical instruments. The aim was two-fold: one, to make Indian readers aware of certain artistes they might not have heard before, and secondly, to expose relatively new audiences, mainly from the West, to the melodic or rhythmic beauty that various Indian instruments offer.

In this series, I shall not go into too many technicalities and playing styles. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style. However, while I have tried to name all the main musicians, the lists mentioned are by no means exhaustive or complete. In all parts of the series, I shall use a similar format to maintain uniformity, and some portions on the concert structure may be repeated verbatim if needed.

The earlier parts of the series talked about the violin, sitar, bansuri, sarangi, different types of veena and the sarod. This month, we feature the santoor.


EVERYONE immediately identifies the santoor with Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. From the ’60s, he has ruled the stage with hundreds of live concerts and released numerous albums, making him the undisputed monarch of the instrument.

Sharma, in fact, is singularly credited with the adaptation and popularisation of the santoor in Hindustani classical music. Earlier, it was played primarily in lighter forms of music, but under the guidance of his father and guru Pandit Uma Dutt Sharma, he began playing classical compositions.

Compared to the sitar, sarod and bansuri (bamboo flute), the santoor has relatively fewer practitioners. Yet, it remains hugely popular among classical music fans, mainly because of the serene and captivating music it produces. It has a distinct look too, trapezoid in shape, and is played by striking it with a pair of mallets.

Here, we shall look at the instrument’s origins, how it is played, major players and its use in other kinds of music.

Origins: An ancestral archetype of the santoor was believed to have been invented in Mesopotamia before 900 BC, and much later used in different forms in Iraq and India.

In ancient Sanskrit texts, the santoor has been called the ‘shata-tantri veena’ or hundred-stringed instrument. In India, it was primarily played in Kashmiri music and Sufiana music as an accompanying instrument.

With Sharma’s efforts, it achieved the status of a solo instrument in Hindustani classical music, and is now recognised internationally. The santoor is considered to be part of the dulcimer family, other similar instruments including the hammered dulcimer (as known in the UK, US and Canada), hackbrett (played in mainland Europe) and cimbalom (played in eastern Europe and Russia).Japan, Korea and China have their own types of dulcimers.

How the santoor is played: In any concert, the musician sits with the instrument on his lap. The broader side is placed close to the musician, and he strikes the strings with a pair of mallets or hammers.

Different strings produce different sounds and a typical santoor has two sets of bridges, with a three-octave range. Tuning is done through pegs located on the musician’s right.

The santoor is primarily played by a solo artiste, with accompaniment from the tabla and from the stringed drone instrument tanpura. At times, it is also used as a duet (called jugalbandi) with other instruments, mainly the bansuri. The jugalbandis between Sharma and flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia are legendary.

A concert usually begins with the rendition of a classical raga, the melodic mode used in Indian music. The first piece comprises a three-part movement beginning with the slow alaap, increasing tempo with the jod and reaching an energetic climax with the jhala. Here, there is no tabla accompaniment.

After the alaap-jod-jhala sequence, the instrumentalist plays two or three compositions in the same raga, with tabla accompaniment. These are known as gats or bandishes, and while the santoor player demonstrates his skill here, the tabla player also gets certain portions to play brisk passages, much to the audience’s delight.

Once this first raga is over, the santoor player may play another raga, or may play certain light ragas, folk tunes or devotional pieces, depending on the time allotted. Most santoor players are known to play a light piece in raga Pahadi towards the end of the concert.

Major players: For his part, Sharma has groomed many talented santoor players like R Visweswaran, Satish Vyas, Nandkishore Muley, Dhananjay Daithankar and of course his son Rahul Sharma.

The other well-known santoor players include the senior Kashmir artiste Bhajan Sopori, the innovative Ulhas Bapat, Tarun Bhattacharya, who has studied under sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, and Snehal Muzoomdar, who is known for his jugalbandis with veena player Narayan Mani. Among the youngsters, Sopori’s son Abhay is also making a mark.

Use in other music: Besides classical concerts, Sharma also teamed up with Chaurasia to produce film music under the name Shiv-Hari. He has thus used the santoor in films like ‘Silsila’, ‘Chandni’, ‘Lamhe’ and ‘Darr’, besides playing the instrument in older film songs.

By and large, Sharma has stayed away from fusion. The only known experiment in this genre was the piece ‘Shringar’ with the group Remember Shakti at a live concert in Mumbai. But his concept album ‘The Call of the Valley’, with Chaurasia and guitarist Brij Bhushan Kabra, has been a best-seller in Hindustani classical music.

Rahul Sharma has been taking the santoor to newer areas, especially through his collaborations with international artistes like pianist Richard Clayderman (on the albums ‘The Confluence’ and ‘The Confluence II’), saxophonist Kenny G (on ‘Namaste India’), world music group Deep Forest (on ‘Deep India’) and Egyptian oud player Georges Kazazian (on ‘A Meeting By The Nile’).

Rahul has also released experimental albums like ‘Time Traveller’, which has a new age element, and ‘The Rebel’, which blends classical music with soft-rock and is being promoted as santoor-rock.

These albums have found a willing audience among younger listeners. They would act as a perfect initiation for those who haven’t heard much of the instrument. But to gain a deeper understanding of the santoor, it is essential to begin with any Shivkumar Sharma  classical recording, ideally with Ustad Zakir Hussain on the tabla. The santoor simply enchants you with its sheer melody.



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